Episodic warming of early Mars by punctuated volcanism


The widespread evidence for liquid water on the surface of early Mars is difficult to reconcile with a dimmer early Sun. Many geomorphological features suggestive of aqueous activity, such as valley networks and open-basin lakes, date to approximately 3.7 billion years ago1,2,3,4,5, coincident with a period of high volcanic activity5,6. This suggests that volcanic emissions of greenhouse gases could have sustained a warmer and wetter climate on early Mars. However, models that consider only CO2 and H2O emissions fail to produce such climates7,8, and the net climatic effect of the sulphur-bearing gases SO2 and H2S is debated9,10,11. Here we investigate the atmospheric response to brief and strong volcanic eruptions, including sulphur emissions and an evolving population of H2SO4-bearing aerosols, using a microphysical aerosol model. In our simulations, strong greenhouse warming by SO2 is accompanied by modest cooling by sulphate aerosol formation in a presumably dusty early Martian atmosphere. The simulated net positive radiative effect in an otherwise cold climate temporarily increases surface temperatures to permit above-freezing peak daily temperatures at low latitudes. We conclude that punctuated volcanic activity can repeatedly lead to warm climatic conditions that may have persisted for decades to centuries on Mars, consistent with evidence for transient liquid water on the Martian surface.

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Figure 1: Volume, surface area and instantaneous effusion rate of the Hesperian ridged plains17 compared to terrestrial flood basalt provinces30.
Figure 2: Radiative forcing by SO2 and H2SO4-coated dust.
Figure 3: Atmospheric effects of punctuated eruptions.


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We thank M.J. Wolff for insightful comments. I.H. acknowledges support from an Alon Fellowship for Young Principal Investigators from the Israeli Committee for Higher Education, and from the Helen Kimmel Center for Planetary Science at the Weizmann Institute of Science. J.W.H.III acknowledges support from the NASA Mars Data Analysis Program.

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I.H. developed the aerosol microphysics and radiative transfer models, performed the calculations, analysed the results and drafted the main and supplementary text. J.W.H.III provided the geologic evidence for the nature and timing of plains volcanism on early Mars and the association with aqueous activity. Both authors contributed to interpretation of the results and to writing the text.

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Correspondence to Itay Halevy.

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Halevy, I., Head III, J. Episodic warming of early Mars by punctuated volcanism. Nature Geosci 7, 865–868 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2293

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